IWLS Argentina Mountaineering

20 days is a long time to be out. It’s the longest I’ve been out in the mountains. Honestly, after day 5 or 6 you just get the hang of it. One day turns into another, and you just enjoy yourself out there. An incredible experience to immerse yourself in nature for that long.

This course was marketed as a Mountaineering skills course. It was run by the International Wilderness Leadership School, an offshoot of Alaska Mountain Guides. A course more based on learning than just climbing everyday. If I just wanted to do a climb, I wouldn’t have done this course. I learned on this course. Learning how to be safer, strong, more aware, and more self sufficient while traveling in the mountains. I honestly learned more up there in 20 days than I probably ever did in a week of school. We learned about topics ranging from mountain weather patterns to crevasse rescue, to different leadership styles. It was amazing. Here is the course description if anyone was wondering.

On Tuesday, November 14th, myself, and two other students along with our two guides took a bus to the ski resort town of Los Penitentes. Los Penitentes is about a 3.5 hour drive from Mendoza, and almost equidistant to Santiago, Chile. It stands just a hour or so from the Argentinian-Chilean border. It’s a funny little resort down. Older hotel buildings make it look like it could be something out of the Shining. An old diesel chairlift heading up the mountain lies across the highway. Not only is Los Penitentes a local ski resort (with not amazing snow I’m told) it’s also the staging area for Aconcagua climbs. Pretty much every expedition team packs up here. For our expedition we were working with a local company called Fernando Grujales. Named after a famous Argentinian climber, this family owned company has been running support teams for Aconcagua and related climbs for over 42 years! Pretty cool. We will work with them for Aconcagua as well.

It was the middle of November when we got to Penitentes. We were pretty much the first climbing party of the season heading out. Now mind you, the area we were going too, called the Tupuganto valley, pretty much has no other visitors, other than IWLS, twice a year. Apart from the few locals that hike in a few miles, this course fields some of the few visitors every year.

When we got to the Grujales office we spent several hours organizing gear, and organizing food. Our head guide, Tyler had prepared us a pretty killer food plan. 2lbs of food per person per day, with 50% of it carbs, 30% fats, and 20% proteins. 230 lbs of food for the trip. I was told once you go above 18,000 feet or so, you flip carbs with fats. Hour 2 of the course and I had already learned a decent amount. The great thing about a supported expedition is that you don’t have to carry everything on your own all the time. For our trip, we had Mules carrying our climbing equipment and lots of food up to about 12,500 feet. The thing about Mountaineering is you need to get to the glaciers. You usually can’t just drive there. For us it involved a 3 day hike (and one rest day for acclimatization) into the mountain range. The men riding in with our stuff are known as ganchos, pretty much Argentinian cowboys. This guys were such an amazing help. On day 3 before dropping off our gear, they even cooked some meat for us. Honestly some of the best steak I’ve ever had in my life. For the first 3-4 days we would carry only the necessary items for backpacking.

Los Penitentes at night

The next morning, after a full afternoon of packing, we started our hike in. This area of the Andes is much different than our climbing and hiking in the Peruvian Andes. The Andes here are a high altitude dessert. Very dry area with very interesting geological formations. High winds and bitter cold are the common descriptions for this part of the Argentinian Andes. Emil at the start of our approach hike

Emil at the start of our trip

The multi day hike in was beautiful. The first few days we did 5-9 mile days, gaining a bit of altitude everyday. By day 4 we were nearly at 12,000 feet. Lucky for Emil and myself, we were well acclimatized after staying at 11,000 feet in Cuzco for so long. Om the hike in we saw several foxes, a coyote, as well as horses and cows.

Other than Peru, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such colorful rock before. Some of these formations were even more beautiful than that of Rainbow Mountain in Peru. Emil and I joked about writing a Trip Advisor review for Rainbow mountain saying, “yeah just hike in a few days into the Argentinian Andes…sooo much better.”

By day 4 we reached about 10,000 feet, and it was time to take a break. Even at 10,000 feet one can develop altitude sickness, so it was time to rest. Altitude sickness can really ruin your trip while climbing. Everyday our guides would record our oxygen saturation % as well as our heart rate. My numbers as well as Emil’s reflected that we were very well acclimatized. I was feeling pretty good at 10k with a 97% oxygen saturation rate.

Day 5 was our hike up to the mule drop, up another 2-3000 feet. This is where we started to lose vegetation. Steep screw with the occasional snow patch. It would pretty much be two weeks until we saw the color green or heard birds chirp again…

One amazing highlight of the hike up to the mule drop was seeing a fox chase a hare, not even that far from us. It was like a scene out of planet Earth. The Fox was literally running up the mountain, trying to catch the hare. But of course…the hare got away…

One of the several foxes that we saw on the hike in.

As we were hiking in and acclimatizing, our instructors set up several different lecture based lessons. We learned and practiced our basic climbing knots, learned about group dynamics and risk management, and other topics such as different learning styles and how to acclimatize properly. Although some of these basic lessons seemed tedious at time (after all we all just wanted to go climbing!) they are incredibly important for the bigger picture of an expedition and climbing itself. Mountaineering and extended backpacking trips are not just all physical. So much of it is mental.

Much lies in the mental aspect and the importance to learn and to think about the human factor. Something that was emphasized early in the course, and it makes sense, that subjective factors can make or break the trip. Being smart and being safe out there takes time and practice. But in a serious situation the human factor is life and death.

The ganchos organizing our gears with the Mules early on in the trip

By day 8, after another rest and lesson day, we moved our camp to 13,500 feet, a few thousand feet up from mule drop. We had to make two carries up to this camp. This was probably the heaviest my pack had been all trip. Somewhere between 60-80lbs, but only for 2-3 hours, so quite tolerable. The original plan was to move camp higher than that onto the glacier, but considering it only would take us 45 minutes to walk up onto the ice field, we decided that moving camp up was a waste of 2 days. Our access from here was still incredible. And wow the view. Now I had a full on view of the South face of Aconcagua. What a beast. For the 10 days that we were up there I probably snapped 30 photos of the same view. Aconcagua looked different every minute of the day. It was pretty easy to see how brutal the weather could be up there. Looking at it every morning just started to make me even more stoked for the climb. This camp was great. It became Home for 10 days. We were about a 15 minute walk from the base of the glacier, and yes I’ll say it again the view was one to die for. There were two MAJOR downsides to this camp, but you got used to it pretty quickly. The first was that you needed to hike about 7 minutes downhill to get water. The second, was that you needed to hike 10 minutes up a large snowy hill to go #2. That really woke you up in the morning. It was a trek. Steep enough some of us would bring a trekking pole for our “journey.”

Pretty cool views from this camp!!!

We had to move tents spaced after a week. Too much snowmelt around our tent! You can see where our sleeping pads were.

On day 8 we also started working on more advanced skills. We practiced our rope and technical knot skills. That can all get frustrating at times but it just takes practice practice practice .

On day 9 we finally got up onto the glacier. Wow, what a fun day. We practiced crampon techniques as well as self arrest. We also started practicing roping up for glacier travel. We also got to practice putting in ice anchors and practice rappelling 30 feet off the glacier. Good practice and lots of fun.

Edge of the glacier where we practiced ice anchors and rappelling.

Another view of the glacier massif from further up.

Day 10 was Thanksgiving. First of all, I have to say the closet I got to a Thanksgiving meal was a pack of Chicken ramen for lunch, but don’t worry, I very much enjoyed it. Day 10 also took a turn for the worse. One of the other students on the trip, a 30 year old woman from Germany, suffered a medicinal incident that couldn’t be treated in the backcountry. It wasn’t life threatening yet, but could be in a few days if she wasn’t evacuated. So unfortunately, her, as well as one of our instructors, Ken, had to hike down to meet the Mules, and then ride back to Penitentes before driving back to Mendoza. Talk about a crappy thanksgiving for them. For myself, Thanksgiving was a day of reflection. Check out my journal entry for Thanksgiving in the post before this one.

This left myself, Emil, Patton (another student, he has just graduated from Carleton College), and our instructor Tyler. Ken would later join us again on day 15. Still, the four of us made a great group. We were all equally focused on learning and all moved at the same speed when hiking or climbing. Except Emil, he’s pretty fast. He’s a freaking mountain goat. That afternoon we worked on snow anchors and roping up for glacier travel. Snow anchors make sense to me, I just definitely need to practice building them.

Day 11 was one of the best days of the trip. It was a beautiful day to try and climb something. Our goal was a rock face that overlooked camp. But to get there we had to climb up a steep gully for a few hours, then rope over for glacial travel for the ridge, and finally have Tyler set up a few rock anchors for the last 60 meters of the climb, a short alpine rock face. Mind you I don’t rock climb. I’ve bouldered a few times before, but I really have little experience rock climbing. This was tough, but a good challenge for the summit push. We had made it!

First climb and summit of the trip. It was also Tyler’s birthday so we were all in a great mood. Incredible views of the valley and again we were staring across at Aconcagua. We were just over 15,000 feet, so it was pretty crazy to believe the summit of Aconcagua still towered nearly 8,000 feet above where we were.

Patton rappelling down off the summit.

The way down after that climb was probably my most memorable part of the trip. I got the chance to lead the team down onto the glacier. We would take a long glacier walk down and around back to camp. This was exhilarating and gave me a real dose of euphoria. I don’t know what it was, but I was just overwhelmed with joy.

Here I was, with nothing in front of me but glacier and vast mountains. Pure silence except for the snow starting to fall, the sound of my footsteps, and the occasional yell from my partners several meters behind me. It began to snow. Not just flurry, it began to puke snow. A whiteout on the ice field. It was incredible. When I turned around I could just make out the color of my rope team’s jackets. Such spectacular feeling. Little way to completely explain how I was feeling.

Images from the glacier walk out and a view of cracks in the ice field.

A few of our summit from the return route. The horn looking rock face is what we climbed!

Coming down the glacier closer to camp was quite an adventure. Mind you I was leading and it was still snowing. I thought we were going the right way and so did Tyler. But we weren’t. And the area we were in was crevassed. And I fell in. The whole team arrested and I could pull myself out. I fell to my waist, but I honestly couldn’t see the bottom. I have to say, as somewhat scary as it was, it was pretty freaking cool. It gave me a better understanding of how glaciers work, and even if you fall into a crevasse you aren’t completely screwed, sometimes you can just pull yourself right out. I ended up falling in partially two more times in the next 10 minutes. And then Emil did. And then Tyler did (we all laughed at him for that back at camp.)

After that we decided to turn around, and try a different route back to camp. We cruzed back to camp once we found the right route. Wow, what a wonderful day. It was after that I realized even more how blessed I was to be up there experiencing the magnificent glaciers.

The next day we went ice climbing. Holy crap that was hard. We set up an ice anchor off the toe of the glacier to practice climbing up 20-30 feet. Wow this was difficult. Took lots of strength I don’t think I have. It was awesome climbing on the glacial ice. The hard part was just getting purchase. Every axe swing or kick took, took 4 or 5 times before I felt secure. Super hard but super fun. Hopefully I can try my hand again at ice climbing sometime soon out in Colorado.

Emil in the first picture, our friend Patton in the second, and myself in the third

Up at high camp we were finding fossils left and right.

The day after we started diving into pulley systems and crevasse rescue. This sort of stuff is rarely ever used but very important to learn. We spent the whole day learning and practicing a 3:1 crevasse rescue system. The idea of a 3:1 system is too create a haul system that puts the weight of a victim on an anchor, this allows you to divide the weight of the victim by 3, and use advantage systems to pull them out. The idea being if your victim weighed 150lbs, it would only feel like you were pulling 50lbs out of a crevasse. This rescue technique is only ideal if the victim is healthy but just can’t pull themselves out of the crevasse. A very good skill to be able to practice. In reality, the most common way to get someone out of a crevasse is to have a second rope team come in and just help pull, but obviously that’s not always the case.

Day 14! Two weeks in. Hard to believe it! The longest I’ve been out. Honestly I was super in the swing of things at this point. Just so freaking happy to be out there. This day included a walk up onto the glacier field. We were up there to scope out a route up the only named peak in the area, Cerro Dorris. We figured we may get blocked by a steep rock face, but we wanted to give it a try anyways.

The center glaciated peak is Cerro Doris.

This is a selection of some of my favorite photos of the trip. I really love the picture of Emil staring down our path on the ice field. It captivated the moment very well.

The next morning was an alpine start. 3:30am out of camp. Cold and tired but in awe as we walked up to the glacier with thousands of stars above us. Walking across the ice field during twilight and starting our climb during sunrise was equally as rewarding.

The climb started with a steep gully. The snow was nice and firm and made for good steps but it wasn’t easy. It was probably 1200 feet or so of a 50 degree gully. Well the snow was firm for a while. It then began soft. And of course I was the biggest on our rope team. So I kept falling into the snow-waist deep- it was NOT pleasant. Emil was leading us up the climb, with our guide Tyler in the back. Emil was doing such a great job and I’m really proud of him for that day. He was setting pro and breaking trail. Meaning he was putting in snow anchors to make sure we wouldn’t fall too bad incase someone on the rope team fell.

And of course, we were blocked by the cliff face we though we were going to be blocked by. It was too bad. But we got up to 16,200 feet and the view was INCREDIBLE. Not to mention I was pretty tired so I’m honestly not sure I would have been able to make the 1,000 foot summit push anyways. But hey, it was a beautiful day, how could I complain with this view? The way down was interesting. The snow was melting so much I was literally falling down the mountain. It was obvious it’s almost summer in Argentina.

Yeah, you could say I really couldn’t complain. Just so joyful to be up there on the ice field.

Day 16. After the unsuccessful summit, my toes were feeling pretty crappy again. If you don’t remember, while climbing in Peru I suffered a combination of toe bang and frostbite. And on day 14 I lost my third toe nail of the trip-ugh. I decided I needed to take it easy for the rest of the trip, after all I just had Aconcagua in a week and a half! That day we practiced our 3:1 rescue system again. Emil and Patton also went with our instructors up to the glacier to practice a full 6:1 rescue system. The ideal haul system if the crevasse victim is injured and needs assistance. I was mad to miss this but I made the right choice to stay out of my boots for a day.

Day 17. We started our hike out. Hard to believe! We had been blessed with good weather at our high camp. Apart from our whiteout glacier walk, we had had completely blue skies! It was pretty cold at times, but not frigid. Probably in the tens or teens with wind chill at times. The 5 of us (Ken had joined us again) made two runs of gear down to mule drop. One run of stuff we wanted the Mules to carry out, and the other, the gear we wanted for the multi-day hike out. That night we made it down into the valley, near our second camp. And wow it was warm and wow it was beautiful. Pretty much the first time I had seen the color green in 10 days…

Great views on the hike down to cowboy camp, and at our cowboy camp.

The weather was so nice we all decided to sleep outside under the nearly full moon. We all acknowledged how blessed we were to be out there. The sunset and the moon and stars just left me speechless. I stayed up for hours just staring into the heavens.

On Day 18 we hiked down several thousand feet to a Refugio, basically a little stone hut a few miles from the highway. We were near the hike of Cerro Penitentes, pretty much the only popular hike near where we were. Occasionally locals hike to the Refugio, spend the night, and the next morning hike Penitentes.

El Refugio

Everyone else hiked Penitentes on day 19, but I decided to chill, to rest my toes and knees. They said it was incredible. And by this point we were all super humans. Emil, Patton, Tyler, and Ken ascended 3,000 feet in just 2 hours! I was very surprised to see them back so early at camp.

River head dunk on day 19.

Day 20. Hard to believe. We had made it. 20 days is a long time to be out. But wow did I love it. Of course it’s always better to share these incredible moments with my best friend. We descended into the desert again. The views were incredible. It was pretty cool to witness so many biomes on this trip.

Wow. What a trip. I learned to much. I’m so happy I went on this trip. It stunk it was a low snow year, but I still got to learn. I feel more confident about myself as a leader and a climber. Our instructors were great and I really felt this course was worth while. It’ll help me in the future as Emil and I start to reach new heights. I keep forgetting I’m only 18. I get another 20 years to climb! Every time I go out, I just want to continue to challenge myself and push new limits, that’s what this course is about.

I’m a happy guy living an amazing life.

On Saturday Emil and I leave for Aconcagua. Yeahhhhhh…starting to realize this climb is KINDA a big deal. I’m stoked. I’ll post a little preview about this trip on Friday night.

Cheers-

Jack

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